Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Monday, April 30, 2007

The “Above the Influence” Television Media Campaign: Employment of Social Learning Theory Gone Awry — Megan Chen

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) has determined the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, an endeavor that has spent over $1.2 billion between 1998 and 2004, ineffective at reducing adolescent marijuana use (1). The GAO report found that, according to a study by Westat Inc. and the University of Pennsylvania, the campaign was unsuccessful in both preventing initiation of marijuana use as well as diminishing current marijuana smoking habits among youth in the U.S. Although the GAO recommends discontinuation of the campaign due to its unproductive outcomes, the Bush administration continues to include the campaign in the national budget, in fact, with a $20 million increase from the previous year (2). Supplying more money for a program that is dependent on ineffectual methods seems fruitless, and, indeed, current campaign attempts seem equally ineffective. The latest theme of the federal anti-drug campaign, “Above the Influence”, will most likely also be unsuccessful in decreasing drug use among adolescents because most of its TV ads attempt to inappropriately apply Social Learning Theory.

Social Learning Theory is based on the tenet that people do not learn behaviors in a vacuum, isolated from external interactions (3). The theory stresses that a large contribution to adopting behaviors stems from observing and then emulating the actions of others within an individual’s community. Being aware of both the activities of others and the consequences that result facilitates the awareness and development of previously nonexistent behaviors to the observant individual. Three principles encapsulate the theory’s essence: a) Observational learning is best acquired by translating the behavior to symbols before performing the behavior in an exaggerated manner; b) The modeled behavior is more easily learned if its consequences are valued by the observing individual; c) If the behavior is highly valued or admired and it serves a purpose for the individual, she is more apt to follow the modeled action.

The adolescent population seems ideal for employing Social Learning Theory techniques to reduce illicit drug use. One study deemed peer drug use as universally labeled the factor most likely to influence current drug use (4). It has also been shown that peer influence is especially instrumental in initiation and continuation of smoking marijuana (5). Therefore, since research indicates that peer behavior is a strong indicator of individual behavior during adolescence, young adults most likely have an increased susceptibility to adopting modeled behavior; utilizing Social Learning Theory methods could potentially result in successful outcomes. Despite this possibility, however, the “Above the Influence” television ads fail to connect with their young audience due to four key factors.

1. Failure to create behavior adolescents will want to model

One television commercial employed in the campaign is a cartoon called “Not Again” (6), one of five ads drawn as childish cartoons. Examining and analyzing this ad will help explain how the campaign was faulty in utilizing Social Learning Theory. The piece begins with two poorly drawn stick figures sitting next to each other on a nondescript bench while lackadaisical piano music (which mimics the chopsticks-like, elementary recital piece) plays in the background. One figure, assumed the “boy”, since it doesn’t have long hair and isn’t wearing a skirt, starts smoking a joint, while the other one (the “girl”) watches. Her face turns forward (presumably, to the television viewing audience), exhibiting an incredibly unremarkable expression, and the words “not again” are written in red next to her. All of a sudden, an unidentified flying object appears in the distance, lands, and a little alien descends toward the couple (at least, one assumes it’s an alien only because it came from the U.F.O., not because of its appearance, which is basically the same stick-figure body with a more triangular head and larger, wider eyes). The pot-smoker offers the alien a drag, and, only after closer inspection, the alien turns away with a raised hand, and the words, “no thanks” appear next to it in red. Upon this refusal of the marijuana offering, the girl stands up quickly. Obviously swooning with love for this species unknown to her , a red heart blinks repeatedly over her head. The cartoon concludes with the girl and the alien floating through the sky inside the aircraft, cute, moth-like insects flitting alongside, and the boy watching stoically from below.

“Not Again”, in an attempt to employ Social Learning Theory, presents the idea that if you don’t smoke marijuana you get the girl. Or, in the case of the girl’s perspective, ditching the pot-smoker will afford you love and happiness. While the commercial makes an honest attempt to fulfill the first principle of Social Learning Theory by creating a symbolic representation of behavior, the use of the alien forces the ad’s portrayal to cross from exaggerated to entirely unrealistic. Furthermore, “Not Again” is a cartoon, drawn in silly stick-figure-like images that remind one of preschool, not of junior or high schoolers. Students will likely not want to emulate these characters because the commercial itself undermines their maturity as adolescents by trying to cater to them with cartoons. Adolescence is a unique period during development where individuals gain more independence and maturity as they prepare to enter the adult world (7). Attempting to elicit this group’s attention through immature cartoons disrespects this essential aspect of being a young adult.

Secondly, the thrust of the ad is that the girl ditches the pot-smoker for, not another law-abiding, upstanding, fellow student, but an alien that suddenly comes out of the sky. The preposterousness of this ending is also insulting to adolescents’ intelligence, which represents another reason for an unwillingness to model the behavior.

2. Adolescents may model undesired behavior

The second main component of Social Learning Theory is that people will be inclined to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in a desired outcome. What is the desired outcome in this ad? Falling in love with a random alien? The sheer inclusion of the alien makes the behavior the campaign promotes seem fruitless, considering that the chances of this happening in reality are slim. Most teens will not value a romantic relationship with another species.

Furthermore, how can the campaign writers be sure that adolescents won’t model the kid smoking marijuana since his outcome is continuing to enjoy his joint and getting rid of a flippant, uncaring, potentially undesirable girl who wants to date an alien? Studies have shown that the onset of puberty in adolescence confers an increase in “sensation-seeking, risk-taking and reckless behavior” (8). It could be entirely normal for a young adult to admire the marijuana smoker as a risk-taking rebel, free to do as he pleases, and immune to the shackles of authority.

Additionally, many studies have proposed that one motivation behind adolescent risk-taking behavior involves improving status among peers (9). The teen desiring more attention or popularity among her social circle may model the cool marijuana-smoker in the hope of gaining esteem and approval. Indeed, it has been shown that more popular teens are heavily influenced by their peers, even to the point of increasing their “deviant behavior” in order to continue being liked (10). Teens may also want to model the pot-smoker in the attempt to disassociate themselves from the alien refusing marijuana. Again, use of the alien creates undesirable consequences, as it could introduce or reinforce the notion that only those who are foreign, different, weird, and thus probably “uncool” do not engage in illicit drug use. Therefore, the campaign fails to establish correctly which behavior adolescents are more likely to model, and thus may be promoting actions opposite to its intent.

In fact, the notion that adolescents may adopt the nonintended behavior is not merely conjecture. The Westat study also indicated that “those who were more exposed to the Campaign tended to move more markedly in a ‘pro-drug’ direction as they aged than those who were exposed less” (1). Additional evidence of Westat’s finding involves another commercial concocted by the “Above the Influence” campaign, entitled, “Slom” (11). The ad depicts young adults (real actors this time) engaging in slomming, which stands for “sticking leeches on myself”, to create a euphoric effect. The ad concludes with, “What could you be convinced to do?” Before the airing of this commercial, slomming was entirely fictional, and, to the campaign writers, so extremely ridiculous to ever be considered a potential means to get high. Again, this assumption is where the writers ultimately falter, since they disregard the scientific research that has repeatedly indicated adolescents are more prone to risk-taking and sensation-seeking behavior (8). Furthermore, evidence has asserted that adolescents choose risky activities even while being aware and understanding the potential hazards associated with the behavior (12). Accordingly, teens may understand that subjecting oneself to leeches may be harmful, bizarre, and even ludicrous, but some will still try slomming, nevertheless. Thus, the inevitable happened and/or is happening. According to, young adults have actually tried slomming since the ads aired, and the act is even gaining “minor popularity” among some groups (13).

3. Slogan and intent are contradictory

The campaign is called “Above the Influence”, emphasizing the fact that teens should be empowered to act on their own volitions instead of catering to popularity or peer influence. All five of the commercials drawn as cartoons depict two figures: one engaging in drug use and the other figure either admonishing, ignoring, or abandoning the pot-smoker. The intent of these ads is to exhibit correct behavior (from the character refusing drugs) that adolescent viewers can model. However, every ad ends with the key message, “Above the Influence”. The fact that the campaign uses Social Learning Theory in its television ads sends a confusing message because modeling behavior is exactly contrary to the campaign’s slogan. Furthermore, “Above the Influence” could just as easily be interpreted to disregard all potential influences in an adolescents’ life, which includes good advice from other peers, parents, teachers, role models, even the ads themselves.

4. A better use of Social Learning Theory, disregarded

One commercial was unique in that it employed Social Learning Theory more successfully. “Grant”, an ad depicting a dedicated, young surfer, was previously aired on television and available on the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign website in the Television Ad Gallery (as of March 1, 2007). To date, its status has been demoted to a print ad, with freeze frames of the commercial lined up on a poster and Grant’s thoughts (“You have to have a quick mind so you can surf harder. I get motivated just by thinking of surfing. I would never think of smoking pot.”) alongside them (14). The stills on the poster that were live action on the commercial include Grant surfing, contemplating on the beach, and bike riding, surf board in tow. In many of the scenes, he is accompanied by his friends, and, especially in the television ad, a sense of camaraderie is notable. There is no pot-smoker or negative image for teens to emulate; Grant’s positive presence is the only figure available to model. Furthermore, adolescents will most likely favorably view the outcome of Grant’s behavior as enjoying his life, having a steady group of friends and being motivated by an activity he likes.

The National Anti-Drug Media Campaign writers fail to realize the significance of purely positive peer influence, which encompasses actions and behaviors that transcend “just saying no” or refusing an unhealthy behavior when offered. One study revealed the protective effect against substance use among adolescents whose friends were involved in “prosocial behaviors (e.g., assisting troubled teens; involvement in school activities)” (15). Grant also represents a peer role model with prosocial behaviors, exhibiting a positive, motivated and focused attitude that can help influence adolescents to find their own passions and interests without resorting to drug use. Some campaign writer understood this important effect of positive peer modeling just by creating the “Grant” commercial, but it seems the leaders and/or majority of the campaign creative staff are not following her stead. Taking “Grant” off the air, only allowing limited viewing of it geographically, visually, experientially and in time, and continuing to air misleading commercials in its place reveals a lack of knowledge about the great potential of positive peer influence as well as an ineptitude about adolescent behaviors.

In conclusion

Social Learning Theory techniques hold great potential to result in the successful adoption of healthy behaviors (and thus, less drug use) in adolescents. However, as revealed in the “Above the Influence” media campaign, faulty implementation of the theory coupled with an ignorance of this group’s characteristics as a whole can lead to unintended and unfavorable consequences. This defective and potentially harmful campaign is still being funded and still currently reaching adolescent audiences. While the federal government seems immune to any evidence against the campaign, the public health community is surely not. We need to connect to our youth with better messages and methods before more resources are wasted, and most importantly, more adolescents are potentially enticed to try unhealthy behaviors.


1. United States Government Accountability Office. Contractor’s National Evaluation Did Not Find That the Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Was Effective in Reducing Youth Drug Use. Washington, DC:GAO 06-818, 2006.
2. Leinwand D. Anti-drug advertising campaign a failure, GAO report says. USA Today. 2006 Aug [cited 2006 Aug 28]. Available from:
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4. Swadi H. Individual risk factors for adolescent substance use. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 1999; 55:209-24.
5. Kandel D, Kessler R, Margulies R. Antecedents of adolescent initiation into stages of drug use: a developmental analysis (pp. 73-99). In: Kandel D, ed. Longitudinal Research on Drug Use: Empirical Findings and Methodological Issues. Washington, DC: Hemisphere, 1978.
6. “Not Again”. Television Ad Gallery. Washington, DC: National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
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10. Allen JP, Porter MR, McFarland FC, Marsh P, McElhaney KB. The Two Faces of Adolescents’ Success With Peers: Adolescent Popularity, Social Adaptation, and Deviant Behavior. Child Development. 2005; 76:747-60.
11. “Slom”. Television Ad Gallery. Washington, DC: National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
12. Benthin A, Slovic P, Moran P, Severson H, Mertz CK, Gerrard M. Adolescent health-threatening and health-enhancing behaviors: A study of word association and imagery. Journal of Adolescent Health. 1995; 17:143-52.
13. Urban Dictionary. “Slom” definition. Urban Dictionary.
14. “Grant”. Print Ad Gallery. Washington, DC: National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
15. Prinstein M, Boergers J, Spirito A. Adolescents’ and Their Friends’ Health-Risk Behavior: Factors That Alter or Add to Peer Influence. Journal of Pediatric Psychology. 2001; 26:287-98.

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